By Dan Bodene, contributing writer
It’s like planning a dinner. Only it’s a symphony concert instead of a meal.
Each summer, Gregory Cunningham, Ed.D., puts together the “menu” for the Oakland Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming season. Dr. Cunningham, music director and principal conductor of the symphony, often uses the gastronomic analogy because, “Like planning a dinner, you need a balance, finding some musical pieces that are divergent and some that are complementary.”
This season, the Oakland Symphony has a lot on its plate with four scheduled concerts. The first was held on Oct. 10; the final concert is set for March 16, 2011. Tickets are currently available for the second concert, set for Sunday, Nov. 14. For detailed information on the season, view the schedule
The 2010-2011 performance season is the first for the Oakland Symphony Orchestra.
Since 1976, the semi-professional Pontiac-Oakland Symphony had been “in residence” at OU, but the university decided to begin a new era with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra. “For a lot of great reasons,” said Dr. Cunningham.
One is providing a showcase for OU’s talent. Along with semi-professional musicians from Southeastern Michigan, the orchestra includes OU faculty and students.
“It’s a really unique opportunity for students,” said Dr. Cunningham, who is an associate professor of music, director of orchestral studies and director of bands at Oakland. “They play with some of the best orchestral musicians in the state.”
It’s not easy for a student to secure a chair on the Oakland Symphony. Auditions are held each fall, where students perform “excerpts” for a panel of reviewers who can hear, but not see, the musicians. Excerpts are orchestral works extracted for the purpose of auditions. They are selected to measure the candidate's technical or interpretive abilities.
It’s the same rigorous audition process that professional orchestras use, Dr. Cunningham said, which contributes to the real-world experience.
To reach that level, students gain experience through their studies and rehearsals and by belonging to one of OU’s other ensembles – brass musicians in the OU Brass Band, string musicians in the University Chamber Orchestra, and so on. Once accepted into the Oakland Symphony, students take on the additional rehearsal schedule before every concert.
Deciding on the musical meat and potatoes of each concert is a time-consuming process, Dr. Cunningham admits. “I spend all summer getting input from colleagues – what professors are studying with the students in their music theory or music history classes. I look for student strengths, and consider what repertoire would be edifying and appropriate to experience as a university music student. It’s a lot of repertory to learn, but we present a product that represents the collaboration of a lot of people.”
Then there’s the element of balance, of the complementary and the divergent. For example, the second concert in this season’s series contains a 1926 work by Paul Hindemith, “Konzertmusik für Blasorchester, op. 41.” Dr. Cunningham said it’s a somewhat unusual choice.
“It’s a piece that utilizes a lot of low brass players, which is uncommon in orchestral works,” he said.
These days, Dr. Cunningham can devote more time to the music, and less to back-office concerns. “Oakland University believes in the importance of the orchestra, and is loaning development resources to help us promote it,” he said.
Only about a quarter of the orchestra’s funding comes from ticket sales – the rest must be secured through benefactors and supporters. But Dr. Cunningham said because the arts are so crucial to the OU community, “The best thing anyone can do is buy a ticket to our concerts.”
Who knows – concert-goers just might see another musician or two of the caliber of OU alumna Regina Carter, a world-renowned violinist. Or perhaps a budding opera star. Or maybe a future Oakland music professor.
“Careers in music are as diverse as any,” explained Dr. Cunningham. “That’s why we try to round out our students’ musical education.”
And for that, OU brings to the table a lot of the right ingredients.
For tickets to performances by the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, and other events of OU’s Department of Music, Theatre and Dance, visit the website